Last year, Tucker Carlson traveled to Budapest to celebrate Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s aggressively illiberal and xenophobic prime minister, by filming a week of episodes that included “lessons” the United States could draw from his anti-democratic, immigration-restrictionist rule. In a sit-down interview, Carlson nodded approvingly as Orbán railed against “post-Christian, post-national societies” and their “very risky” mixture of Muslim and Christian communities. This week, Carlson visited another country undergoing an alarming democratic erosion and fawned over its far-right ruler: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
Broadcasting from both Rio de Janeiro and the capital, Brasília, Carlson has been urging his viewers to pay attention to what’s happening there. This October, Brazilians will go to the polls either to reelect Bolsonaro or cast him out of office. Carlson was there to insist that Bolsonaro isn’t the villain he seems to be in much stateside coverage. “Guess what, this will shock you: Bolsonaro bears no resemblance whatsoever to the descriptions of Bolsonaro you have read in The New York Times—completely different person,” Carlson said in a teaser of his sit-down interview with Bolsonaro, which aired Thursday night. “Seen that before?”
Though he doesn’t explicitly say it, Carlson’s goal with these field trips is to rehabilitate the images of reactionary leaders who have rightfully earned international scorn. But by parachuting into Brazil without any apparent grasp of its politics and culture, Carlson ended up on a sort of confirmation-bias egg hunt: finding evidence everywhere that the real threats in global stability are coming from the liberal internationalist order.
Carlson clearly believes the press unfairly picks on anti-democratic leaders like Bolsonaro—and presumably guys like Orbán, Trump, and maybe even Putin—because of what they get right with the power in their hands rather than their misdeeds. According to Carlson, for example, the Hungarian prime minister “thinks families are more important than banks. He believes countries need borders. For saying these things out loud, Orbán has been vilified.” Bolsonaro, according to Carlson, has been the target of so much animus because he is at heart a nationalist, which places him at odds with the “globalist” agenda in general and China’s hegemonic aspirations in particular.
Highlighting the latter was Carlson’s putative aim in Brazil. In addition to his interviews with Bolsonaro and those close to him, Carlson was filming a documentary for Fox’s premium streaming service about Chinese encroachment on the Americas—he seems downright giddy about the prospect of a new cold war. “China is working hard to turn the developing world into a colony … and that’s particularly true in Brazil,” he stated this week, wildly speculating about Brazil serving as a launching pad for Chinese military incursions in the Western Hemisphere. As far as Carlson is concerned, the U.S. has an interest in a Bolsonaro victory because he is the only one in the region standing in the way of a hostile takeover by Xi Jinping.
In domestic terms, as Carlson put it in the interview that aired Thursday night, Bolsonaro faces “a coalition of billionaires, college professors, and CNN,” all of whom are supposedly eager to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. In asking Bolsonaro how he plans to deal with this type of opposition, Carlson is grafting the image that U.S. conservatives have of the Democratic Party onto Brazilian politics, and it’s not even remotely accurate. For one thing, polls show that the supposedly populist Bolsonaro performs best among the wealthiest Brazilians. (To quote Carlson: Seen that before?) Furthermore, CNN launched in Brazil just two years ago. It is hardly the influential behemoth in Brazil that Fox anchors seem to think CNN is in the U.S.
“Why is there no Fox News in Brazil?” Carlson asked Bolsonaro in Thursday’s interview, suggesting that the president’s reputation might improve with a stronger media apparatus backing his agenda. Bolsonaro talked a bit about Jovem Pan, a trollish conservative radio and television empire that frequently traffics in homophobia, classism, and sexism—it’s the station on which journalist Glenn Greenwald got into a live scuffle with a right-wing journalist in 2019—but lamented the broader hostility of the press corps. But if Carlson had followed Brazilian politics for even one month over the past five years, he would know the depths of animosity that the largest media outlets have toward Bolsonaro’s leading opponent, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former metalworker and union leader who governed the country for eight years and left office with an approval rating in the 80s before being targeted by a biased judge and imprisoned on flimsy corruption charges (he was freed by the Supreme Court in 2019). In fact, major newspapers, magazines, television channels, and radio stations were integral in fomenting the deeply reactionary wave that launched the relatively obscure Bolsonaro to national leadership in the first place. Brazil may not have Fox News, but its media landscape is hardly progressive.
Carlson is primed to castigate the mainstream press—how many Fox anchors have made a living doing just that?—but that political dynamic isn’t coded the same way in Brazil. If anything, the left is historically critical of major outlets, which, like elsewhere in Latin America, are concentrated in the hands of a few conservative families invested in the unequal status quo. Lula’s Workers’ Party has long proposed revisions to the legislation governing how large media companies operate in Brazil. But for Carlson, the mainstream media targets conservatives for special opprobrium in the U.S., so it must do the same in Brazil. Indeed, Carlson seems to have gone to Brazil expecting that what he’d find would align with the worldview he espouses nightly without serious contestation. As a result, he fit everything he heard and saw into a tidy preexisting framework that is digestible to his audience but does very little to teach them anything substantive about Brazilian politics today.
At one point, Carlson asked Bolsonaro about the stakes of October’s presidential election, lobbing the softest of softballs. Decrying identity politics and the divisive rhetoric of Brazilian progressives who have the nerve to be outraged by the country’s enduring injustices, Bolsonaro cast the election in dire terms. Describing his opponents as “atheists,” he insinuated that Lula would crack down on religious practice in Brazil, including by loosening limits on abortion (which is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or serious risk to the mother’s health). Referring to his election as “almost a miracle,” Bolsonaro also asserted that if “the left wing” regains power, they will refuse to leave again, aligning Brazil with the authoritarian governments of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. This is the exact rhetorical playbook Bolsonaro drew from in 2018, and it’s one that will ring familiar to Fox viewers fed a steady diet of hysterical coverage of the Democrats’ supposed plots to shred the fabric of the U.S. Bolsonaro, in this rendering, is a kindred spirit waging a similar war four thousand miles away.
Whatever one thinks of heads of state like Bolsonaro, Orbán, and Trump, it is important to recognize that they operate within particular political contexts, with different oppositions, allies, strategies, and priorities. There may be similarities, but one cannot draw neat, satisfying conclusions about one place based on the developments of another. Carlson seems incapable of grasping this (or at least pretends not to). Interviewing Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons and also a politician, Carlson notes approvingly that Brazil has loosened its rigid gun restrictions since 2018. “What happened?” he asked rhetorically. “Did people go crazy? [Were there] more mass shootings? No, the country became a lot safer.” Last year, in fact, the murder rate dropped to the lowest rate in a decade, continuing a downward trend since 2019. Carlson cites this as evidence that civilian ownership of firearms makes even the most crime-ridden societies safer.
The obvious rejoinder is that Covid-19 struck Brazil in February 2020, just a year into Bolsonaro’s administration, forcing millions of people into the relative safety of their homes. Surely this had an effect on the crime rate. But sociologist Renato Sérgio de Lima, the director of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, offers an even more sophisticated rebuttal: In states where there were more guns in the hands of civilians as a result of Bolsonaro’s policy changes, crime did not go down by any consistent metric relative to those that saw a smaller increase in civilian gun ownership. In other words, the reduction in violent deaths simply cannot be attributed to Bolsonaro’s gun policies. It is all the more dubious to say Bolsonaro has eased concerns about violent crime considering that on his watch last year, there was a 5.8 percent increase in the number of Afro-Brazilians killed by security forces while the same number for white Brazilians declined by 31 percent.
Carlson did not hear about any of this—or if he did, he chose not to share it with his audience. After all, he didn’t come to Brazil to learn about the complexities of South America’s wealthiest, most populous country and how it is still riven by a history of slavery, inequality, and violence. He came to confirm his priors and to bask in the reflected villainy of another strongman promising to stand up to the liberal international order.